Story by Jennifer Gauntt
They are, perhaps, among the unsung heroes of the rescue world.
The canine members of the Texas A&M Task Force (TX-TF) urban search and rescue (SAR) teams can do many things their human counterparts can’t: their athletic frames and fearlessness allow them to squeeze into tight spaces, their agility allows them to maneuver unstable surfaces, and their exquisitely sensitive, trained noses allow them to sniff out the missing (through microscopic molecules in your breath!) to a precision unthinkable for humans.
The impact these dogs make cannot be denied. But the work is incredibly dangerous—the nature of the job requires them to work in all environments and around many hazards.
“The most successful SAR dogs are very highly driven; they do not make good pets. They are the most intense creatures in the dog world,” said Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor of small animal medicine in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Small Animal Clinical Sciences department (VSCS).
“When they and their handlers get deployed into a disaster, the mission is to find, save, or recover missing people, and they often have to go to work on a moment’s notice,” she said. “The first 48 to 72 hours are crucial in a disaster—that’s the critical timeframe you have to work in— and you don’t get to pick the circumstances.”
Zoran pulls double duty as a member of the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) and the team veterinarian for TX-TF 1 & 2. For the past 10 years, her primary objective when training or deploying with either team is to keep these dogs healthy, at peak performance, and mission ready.
“When Marta approached me and said, ‘We have developed a temperature-sensing microchip; we've been looking at it in shelter animals for the past year and we're ready now to put it out in the field,’ my answer was, ‘Absolutely,’” Zoran said. “They had not yet used the temperature microchip in many dogs, but the concept was immediately interesting.”
As Zoran saw it, a temperature-sensing microchip would solve a lot of problems. While she has taught handlers how to perform basic health checks on their dogs, taking a rectal temperature—the most common and accurate method to check temperature—in a working dog can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, in the field.
Finding new ways for handlers to monitor their SAR dogs’ body temperatures has been one of Zoran’s research interests over the past four years; she previously tried a thermistor capsule the dogs could swallow to measure temperature while they worked.
Allflex and Zoran worked out an arrangement to provide free microchips and specially designed microchip readers to the SAR teams, and, in return, Zoran developed a clinical trial protocol to collect temperature data, compare that data between different chip methods, and, over time, compare differences between work/rest cycles in training and deployments, as well as different environmental conditions.
It was a win-win situation for everyone involved.
“The whole idea behind the temp-sensing microchip and why it was powerful and valuable was because temperature monitoring by handlers essentially did not happen in the field; it was too hard to do,” she said. “With a SureSense reader in their pocket, the handlers can easily scan the area where the microchip was inserted and keep track of their dog’s temperature in real time.”
For research purposes, the captured data can be viewed through an app, downloaded by the handler, or directly uploaded to the cloud, where it is sent to Zoran and the Allflex team. By tracking temperatures in everything the dogs do, Zoran and Allflex were able to start establishing baseline and working temperatures by breed, sex, coat type, and other key variables.
Over time and with experience, Zoran has learned that each dog’s temperature ranges are unique.
“Some of these dogs have relatively narrow ranges of temperature excursion; others, like many of our Labradors, really have wide ranges of temperature excursion,” she said. “For example, at rest, some of the Labs will have a resting temperature of 100 degrees, but as soon as they start work, it will jump to 103 degrees, and on hot days, with as little as 20 or 25 minutes of intense search work, they will have a temperature approaching 106 degrees.
“Other dogs on the team, with similar fitness levels and body conditions, will top out at 104-105 degrees after that same amount of work and need to rest,” Zoran said. “What does that mean? Are there wide temperature excursions in Labradors because of genetics? Muscle mass? Diet?”